The importance of H.G. Wells to the development of future studies lies not only in what he wrote, but in his influence on later thinkers. Historian and futurist W. Warren Wagar reviews the range of Wells's contributions to the discipline of future thinking.
Every field of study, like every nation, has its founding fathers and mothers. Figures of legend or of history, they help give the oncoming generations a sense of identity. They instill pride, confidence, and purposefulness. They supply standards by which to measure the performance of new practitioners.
Examples spring easily to mind. In modern physics, Galileo and Newton were the great path breakers; in economics, Adam Smith and the French physiocrats; in history as an academic discipline, Leopold von Ranke. But who "founded" the study of the future? Herman Kahn? Arthur C. Clarke? Bertrand de Jouvenel?
The answer is unsurprising, yet not as obvious as perhaps it should be. The founder of future studies was a man born long before any of these noted seers: the English novelist, popularizer, and journalist par excellence H.G. Wells. No one else begins to rival him. In Wells all the tendencies in earlier futurist thought coalesced; and in his abundant writings models may be found for nearly all that is best in present-day futures inquiry.
The keystone of Wells's futurism is a volume now more than eighty years old. Usually cited as Anticipations its full title was Anticipations of the Reactions of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought.I.F. Clarke, who has studied dozens of Wells's immediate forerunners, freely concedes that "Anticipations was the first comprehensive and widely read survey of future developments in the short history of predictive writing." Wells's book "represented a peak in human self-awareness."
Anticipations first appeared as a series of articles in an English magazine, The Fortnightly Review, in 1901. It was handsomely published as a book the next year by Chapman and Hall in London and by Harper and Brothers in New York. Hitherto known only as a rising young novelist, Wells now expanded his repertoire to include sociology, in the casual sense in which that term was used at the beginning of the century.
Anticipations ranged widely in its subject matter, from the future of transport to the future of world order. The first chapters are familiar fare to anyone who has read other books of the time by journalists sketching with enthusiasm the progress to be expected from science in the new century. Wells looked ahead to the first aircraft and to broad highways teeming with automobiles, busses, and trucks. Suburbia would triumph over city and countryside. In the United States. one vast unbroken sprawl of middle-class life would reach from Boston to Washington. Homes would be prefabricated, and household appliances and chemicals would put an end to the need for servants.
But in later chapters, Wells turned from his predictions of miracle dishwashing solvents and tidy electric ranges to something that for him was much more crucial. By the close of the 20th century, he foresaw the collapse of capitalism and the nation state system in great technologically advanced total wars that the tycoons and the politicians could not, ultimately, understand or control. Power would slip through their fingers. They would be swiftly replaced by the technically competent, by scientists and engineers and managers, who would learn from their errors and build a world state of peace and plenty.
Taken all in all. Anticipations was a real tour de force. No brief summary can do it justice. One of its appreciative readers, Beatrice Webb, jotted in her diary that it was "the most remarkable book of the year." She soon found the opportunity to draw Wells into the inner circle of the Fabian Society, where all the best minds of the British Left congregated in those years.
It is not far-fetched to fix January 24, 1902
as the day when the study of the future
Another by-product of Anticipations was the lecture that the Royal Institution asked Wells to deliver in January, 1902, published later in the same year as a short book, The Discovery of the Future. Here Wells took a step further, and called for the emergence of a whole new science.
The time was drawing near, he wrote, when "a systematic exploration of the future" could yield a firm inductive knowledge of the laws of social and political development. A scientifically ordered vision of the future "will be just as certain, just as strictly science. and perhaps just as detailed as the picture that has been built up within the last hundred years to make the geological past." Not that geology or any other science gave us absolute and final truth. But a "working knowledge of things in the future" was well within man's reach.
Wells spent most of the rest of his life attempting to fulfill the promises of that early lecture. In the light of all that he did achieve, and inspired others to achieve, until his death in 1946 at the age of seventy-nine, it is not far-fetched to fix January 24, 1902, the day of Wells's Royal Institution lecture, as the day when the study of the future was born.
But in the history of ideas nothing is born out of nothing. Wells was surely not the first person to think of studying the future, nor even the first to do so systematically. He inherited the wealth of centuries of futurism. Whatever he managed to pass on to his successors, he adapted in good measure from this rich heritage.
The elements of future study that Wells inherited consist of five layers, each "deposited" somewhat earlier than the one above it. By far the earliest of the five was the investigation in Jewish and Christian theology of what will happen at the end of time, the discipline known as "eschatology."
In the 18th century, the place of eschatology was usurped for many thinkers by the idea of the general progress of the human race. A vast scholarly literature arose to expound this idea. well illustrated by the Marquis de Condorcet's Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, first published in 1795. Its final pages glow with the expectation of a golden future for all mankind.
In the 19th century. three other modes of futures study were firmly established. The social sciences appeared first on the scene, fields of rigorous inquiry into the dynamics of human interaction modeled on the natural sciences. Among them were economics and sociology, both claiming predictive power, from the dire forecasts of Parson Malthus to the elaborate and more hopeful syntheses of Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, and Herbert Spencer.
The two remaining ways of exploring the future perfected in the 19th century occupy disputed territory, midway between science and art. But the best work of both is just as serious, just as well informed, and just as successful in divining the future of bona fide social scientists.
I refer now to the many utopian visions produced by 19th century prophets, and also to the beginnings of speculative fiction about the future. The utopia, in earlier centuries usually a tale about an ideal society located on some remote island, became more typically in the 19th century a blueprint for the ideal society of the future. Examples abound, written by the likes of Charles Fourier, William Morris, and Edward Bellamy. Meanwhile, a new genre of chiefly popular fiction reared its inquisitive head. a fiction devoted to the future possibilities of science and technology, known today as "science fiction."
As Brian Aldiss tells us in Billion Year Spree, the founding mother of science fiction was Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein ( 1818) and The Last Man (1826). But the genre attracted few writers or readers until the closing decades of the 19th century. Jules Verne in France and George Griffith in Britain were among the gifted writers who made it so popular in those years.
The astonishing thing about H.G. Wells, of course, is that he wove all these strands of earlier futurism into a single body of work. more than one hundred volumes in all, published over a span of more than fifty years. Between the mid-1890s and the mid-1940s, he was the foremost public advocate of the belief in progress, the foremost popularizer of the social (and natural) sciences, the foremost writer of literary utopias, and the foremost science-fiction author in the English-speaking world.
He even brought eschatology into his futurism, perhaps without realizing it. Time after time. in works both of fiction and non-fiction, he borrowed what I would call the Biblical paradigm of future days. Like the prophets of the Old and the New Testaments. he predicted that an evil season was near at hand, that the nations would wage a spectacular terminal war, and that in the fires of Armageddon would be forged a post-holocaust kingdom of heaven on earth.
But Wells was more than the sum of his parts. None of the earlier traditions and genres of futurism that he inherited can be termed a scientific study of the future as such. Each had a somewhat different focus or purpose: service of God, interpretation of history, study of society, speculation about science, and so forth. It was not until Wells put them all together in Anticipations and called for a new science of things to come in The Discovery of the Future that a systematic study of futures rises into view.
Nowadays much of Wells's work is neglected, fairly or unfairly as the case maybe. Most of us have read some of his science fiction, such as The Time Machine (1895) or The War of the Worlds (1898) or The First Men in the Moon (1901). Many have seen his pioneering science-fiction films, Things to Come (1935). His utopias, including A Modern Utopia (1905) and Men Like Gods (1923), are less often delved into, despite their importance in their own day. The same is true of his many "mainstream!' novels, like Tono Bungay (1909). Of his popularizations of social science, only The Outline of History (1920) remains familiar.
Seldom consulted even by specialists are the scores of volumes on social problems and issues that flowed from Wells's pen, year after year, throughout his life. Many had their start as articles for newspapers or magazines, and many are woefully "dated."
But what stands out, even now, is the single minded attention that Wells directed in these works to the future of mankind. His obsession with the future is apparent just from the titles of some of these volumes -- The Future in America (1906), New Worlds for Old (1908), The War That Will End War (1914), What Is Coming? (1916), War and the Future ( 1917), A Year of Prophesying ( 1924), The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939). Most explicit of all is the title of his fictional outline of future history, The Shape of Things to Come (1933), a phrase used thousands of times since Wells coined it, often by people who know nothing of the Wellsian original.
A complete recital of Wells's forecasts would fill a volume in itself. His first published book, The Time Machine, gave a terrifying glimpse of the far future, in which warfare between the classes had led to the permanent separation of humanity into two equally degenerate new species. It was a warning, more than a serious prophecy. When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) anticipated a Brave New World of corporate tyranny and behavioral conditioning, written when Aldous Huxley was still a small boy.
As Wells grew into middle age early in the new century, he became more alarmed about the prospects for war among nations. Some of his luckiest hits as a forecaster -- unfortunately! --had to do with the scale and technology of modern warfare. In short stories, novels, and non-fiction. He foresaw the modern tank and warplane, before either existed. He understood that major wars in the 20th century would be total wars, fought by nations with all the human and natural resources at their disposal.
The War in the Air (1908) pictured the destruction of civilization by aerial bombardment of cities. In The Shape of Things to Come, published six years before the start of World War Two, Wells predicted that the war would break out in 1940, beginning as a conflict between Germany and Poland. The real war broke out one year sooner than Wells's, between the same two nations. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June, 1941, with what seemed like an irresistible host, Wells immediately wrote an article for a London Sunday newspaper predicting his defeat. "The war has still to be won," he wrote, "but there is no question that it has been lost by Germany." Again, Wells was right.
Wells wove the strands of earlier
futurism into a single body of work,
more than 100 volumes in all, published
over a span of more than 50 years.
Wells's most uncanny prediction of future wars came many years later, in the spring of 1914, with the publication of his novel The World Set Free. Like other Wellsian scenarios, The World Set Free looked forward to a ruinous world war, which almost obliterated mankind. Out of its ashes mankind rose again and won salvation through world government.
But the unique feature of the novel was its forecast of nuclear weapons. Wells's scientists managed to construct "atomic bombs" from an artificial radioactive element known as Carolinum. When dropped on cities by warplanes, the bombs became raging volcanoes that devastated everything for miles. As the novel's historian of the future muses,
nothing could have been more obvious to the people
of the early twentieth century than the rapidity with
which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly
they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic
bombs burst in their fumbling hands.
Wells's futurist imagination roamed over far more ground than the battlefields of coming wars. He anticipated, campaigned for, and in his way helped to create the League of Nations in 1918-19. When he realized how little power the new League would have, he promptly repudiated it as a travesty of world government, "a blind alley for good intentions . . . a weedy dump for all the weaknesses of European liberalism."
During the Second World War, he tried again to make a new world order a goal of Allied policy. The only concrete result of his labors was a declaration of human rights issued by a committee of public figures under his chairmanship. It helped pave way for the less sweeping human rights declaration of the United Nations in 1948.
In other works, such as a novel published in three volumes in 1926, The World of William Clissold, Wells turned to the idea of an "open conspiracy" spearheaded by multinational corporations. He foresaw the gradual extension of corporate power worldwide until it might entirely usurp the role of governments. For better or worse, much of what he anticipated has come to pass, as documented in the work of the Trilateral Commission.
One of his grandest schemes, and one of his last, was the suggestion of a global organization for the synthesis of all knowledge. The organization would publish a world encyclopedia in every major language. an encyclopedia subject to continuous revision by a research and writing staff as big as the faculties of three or four universities. "It would become," he wrote, "the central ganglion, as it were, of the collective human brain." Wells's ideas summed up in his 1938 book World Brain, influenced such younger futurists as Oliver L. Reiser and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Another futurist who acknowledges the direct inspiration of World Brain is Michael Marien, founding editor of the World Future Society's invaluable monthly bibliographical journal, Future Survey.
* Wells's most serious shortcoming
was one that many of us share; he
often let wishful thinking overshadow
his common sense.
Needless to say, Wells was not alway prescient. In the early days of the first World War, he made the same mistake as almost everyone else, predicting that the war would be over in a few months, with a decisive victory by Britain, France, and Russia. He did not anticipate the Russian Revolution of 1917. When it came. he had little faith in the power of the Bolsheviks to rejuvenate and modernize their shattered nation without massive outside help. Wells also proved fairly unsophisticated as a forecaster of events in the Third World.
His most serious shortcoming was one that many of us share: he too often let wishful thinking overshadow his common sense. In his eagerness to "invent" the future, as Dennis Gabor would say, he let himself see events on the horizons that were simply not ready to happen, if ever.
He made the same mistake, in reverse, in his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945). Ill, depressed, and clearly not his own man, he now foresaw the fast approaching final ruin of civilization. Nothing, he lamented, could save us. Mankind had let its last chances slip away.
All such lapses and losses of nerve notwithstanding, Wells's rightful place as the supreme futurist of the first third of the 20th century is impossible to deny. For decades newspapers and magazine editors automatically turned to him if they wanted an article or a comment on the shape of things to come. He was the futurist laureate of the Western world.
Not that he lacked rivals. In every category. he had formidable ones. His generation contained several great social scientists and popularizers of social science with an abiding interest in the future, such as the British sociologist L.T. Hobhouse. Prominent philosophers wrote about the future of mankind such as Henri Bergson, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell, Journalists like Sir Philip Gibbs, novelists like Jack London playwrights like Bernard Shaw all offered provocative visions of things to come. But none of them had Wells's versatility, or devoted so much time and effort to futures study.
Then came the first post-Wellsian generation, the men and women born between about 1880 and 1905 who grew up in his shadow and who carried on his work. Many knew Wells, and emulated him. Others did not. But his influence was pervasive, even when it took a negative form, as in the writers who rejected his faith in science and progress and world government The authors of the great anti-utopian novels of the our century Yevgeny Zamyatin Aldous Huxley, and George Orwell--were all nourished in their formative years on Wells's fiction.
Another article would be necessary to sketch the achievements of this first post-Wellsian generation. Most of its members are now dead, but they were the immediate forerunners of the leading lights of the futures movement of today. They include Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Gerard Heard, Olaf Stapledon and John Wyndham, Ralph Borsodi and Lewis Mumford, W.F. Ogburn and Pitirim Sorokin, Sir Julian Huxley, H.G. Wells's collaborator in writing that monumental survey of biology, The Science of Life (1931), was another prominent member.
Am I trying to suggest with all this namedropping that the study of futures is not just some marginal and slightly sleazy phenomenon of the last few years, butpotentially, at leasta central activity of the human mind? Does it draw upon the resources of science, philosophy, sociology, history, and all the arts and letters? Is it even a plausible candidate to be the new "queen" of the sciences that may some day unify human knowledge, as Wells prophesied in World Brain?
The answer to each of these questions isabsolutely yes! With the right investment of effort by enough first-rate minds, the disciplined study of the future can revolutionize human life and thought.
This may sound like a tall order Wells covered so much ground, touched so many imaginations. and saw so far and so accurately into the future, that he leaves us all just a little cowed. Looking around today, I don't see many Wellses. In fact I see none. We may wonder if we can ever live up to his example, much less revolutionize human thought.
But no writer was ever less awed by himself than Wells. "I wave the striving immortals onward," he once laughed. He was content to write for immediate consumption, and not worry about his standing with the critics.
It follows that the best way to honor Wells is to pause, remember what he achieved, and then get on with our own work. Let the critics be damned. Study the future. Invent the future. Try to bring it under rational control, for the good of all mankind. From his corner of Valhalla that is surely what H.G. Wells will always be telling us to do.
This article is posted with permission of Dr. Wagar. It first appeared in the World Future Society Bulletin January/February 1983, pp. 25-29.
W. Warren Wagar is Professor of History at the State University of New York at Binghamton and has written widely on the history of ideas in the modern world including two books on H.G. Wells and futurism. His address is Department of History, Binghamton University-SUNY, Binghamton. NY 13902-6000.
Suggestions For Further Reading
The history of ideas of the future is one of the less known sub-divisions of future studies, but it does have its scholarly and popular literature. It can he instructive. It can even he fun.
Anyone who wishes to read more about H.G. Well might begin with the first class biography written by Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, H.G. Wells (Simon and Schuster, 1973). My own H.G. Wells and the World State (Yale University Press, 1961) is a study of Wells's futurism, and in H.G. Wells Journalism and Prophecy (Houghton Mifflin. 1964). I provide a generous selection of excerpts from his writings about current and future events.
Wells the master of science fiction is the subject of many good books. Bernard Bergonzi's The Early H.G. Wells (Manchester University Press, 1961) focuses on the novels and short stories that Wells published down to 1901. Mark R. Hillegas. in The Future as Nightmare (Oxford University Press, 1967), traces the links between Wells and the anti-utopian novel. Most recently there are Frank McConnell's The Science Fiction of H. G. Wells (Oxford University Press, 1981) and Roslynn D. Haynes's H.G. Wells, Discoverer of the Future: The Influence of Science on His Thought (New York University Press, 1980) and for the whole spectrum of Wells's views, John R. Reed The Natural History of H.G. Wells (Ohio University Press, 1982).
To find Wells's place in the larger history of futurist ideas. an excellent guide is The Pattern of Expectation 1641-2001 (Basic Books, 1979) by I.F. Clarke. Broader-ranging still are works such as Fred L. Polak The Image of the Future (Oceana 1961), which follows ideas of the future all the way back to the Egyptians and the Babylonians and Frank E. Manuel and Fritzie P. Manuel Utopian Thought in the Western World (Harvard University Press. 1979). For incisive histories of science fiction, see Billion Year Spree (Doubleday, 1973) by Brian W. Aldiss and Alternate Worlds (Prentice Hall, 1975) by James E. Gunn.
On the belief in progress, a standard work is J.B. Bury, The Idea of Progress (Macmillan, 1932), still readable after all these years. Robert Nisbet has written the most recent overview of the subject. History of the Idea of Progress (Basic Books, 1980) and a more detailed study of what happened to the idea after about 1880 is available in my Good Tidings: The Belief in Progress from Darwin to Marcuse (Indiana University Press, 1972).
I have also written an interpretative history of the futurists of the first post-Wellsian generation The City of Man (Houghton Mifflin, 1963, and Penguin Books, 1967). Finally, for a comprehensive annotated bibliography of futures literature from the 1930s to the mid-1970s, consult Michael .Marien's Societal Directions and Alternatives (Information for Policy Design, 1976).
I would like to add a note of deep appreciation to Bruce Berges of Inglewood. California. who gave me the idea of writing this article. --W.W.W.
[Since W. Warren Wagar wrote this article, he has written another book on H.G. Wells entitled, The Open Conspiracy: Blueprints for world revolution (Adamantine Studies on the 21st Century, vol. no. 32), as well as a new edition of Wells seminal essay, World Brain, with a critical introduction and an annotated bibliography by Wells scholar Alan Mayne (also by Adamantine).]
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